Skip to main content

Full text of "Dedication of a memorial to Moses Ashley Curtis."

See other formats


1808 - 1872 
Teacher - Priest - Scientist 

A Tribute on the Occasion of the 
15 0th Anniversary of His Birth 


igitized by 

the Internet 


in 2013  


1808 - 1872 

Teacher - Priest - Scientist 


William S. Powell 

Chapel Hill 
The University of North Carolina Library 

Printed in 1958 


The Stephens Press, Inc. 
asheville, n. c. 


The Friends of the Library 
The University of North Carolina 



ON THE OCCASION of celebrating the sesquicentennial of his birth, the 
attention of The Friends of the Library of the University of North Caro- 
lina is directed to the history of one of the outstanding citizens of this state. 
The Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis, whose life is briefly recounted here, spent 
most of his adult years in Hillsboro, North Carolina, yet his renown 
spread abroad in spite of the absence of many modern methods of com- 
munication and the intervention of the Civil War. 

A large collection of his personal letters, his scientific papers, sermons, 
drawings, and music, and a portion of his herbaria, as well as numerous 
volumes from his personal library bearing his own notes have come to 
Chapel Hill as a gift from his grandchildren. 

This publication is intended to serve in part as an expression of ap- 
preciation for the collection of Curtis manuscripts, books, and other ma- 
terial and in part to direct the attention of North Carolinians and others 
to the useful life of the Rev. Dr. Curtis. The numerous contributions he 
made to his fellowmen in the many walks of life in which he played a 
part deserve to be better known. That one man could achieve so much 
in so many fields of endeavor can be an inspiration to us in these days 
of single specialties. 




I. Moses Ashley Curtis: The Facts of His Life in Brief 

II. A Man of God 

III. Pioneer American Scientist 

IV. A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Moses Ashley 

The Facts of His Life in Brief 

No detailed biography has been written of Moses Ashley Curtis. 
If he ever recorded his philosophy of life it has not come to light. 
Clearly, however, he was at peace with himself and with the world. 
For him there was no conflict between religion and science; he loved 
people and solitude frightened him; his keen mind led him from 
one active project to another; and his unselfishness earned for him 
scores of friends at home and abroad, yet he never ventured beyond 
the bounds of the Atlantic seaboard states. 

He was born one hundred and fifty years ago — May 11, 1808 
— at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His father, Jared Curtis, was a 
graduate of Williams College, a merchant, and principal of Stock- 
bridge Academy. In 1821 the elder Curtis began preparation for 
the ministry and was quickly licensed to preach as a Congregational 
minister. He soon became chaplain of the state prison at Charles- 
town, Massachusetts, where he remained for many years. Jared 
Curtis was described by a contemporary as being "puritanical in his 
sentiments and habits." The mother of Moses Ashley Curtis was 
Thankful Ashley, a daughter of General Moses Ashley. 

Young Curtis was prepared for college under his father at Stock- 
bridge Academy, and he was graduated from Williams College in 
1827. At Williams he came under the influence of Professor 
Chester Dewey who held the chair of Mathematics and Natural 
Philosophy, and Professor Amos Eaton (a former Williams faculty 
member who apparently returned to lecture while Curtis was a stu- 
dent). Both Dewey and Eaton seem to have set a pattern for in- 
struction in the natural sciences at Williams. Ebenezer Emmons, 
with whom Curtis was later associated in North Carolina, also ex- 
ercised some influence over Curtis as a student. 

Curtis spent the two years following his graduation as a teacher 
and for at least a part of the time was in Walden and Watertown, 
Massachusetts. In 1830 he f sailed for Wilmington, North Carolina, 
where he became a tutor in the family of Edward B. Dudley, wealthy 
merchant and shipper and later governor of the state. Wilmington 
proved to be a pleasant place to live and he made many friends. 
With Dr. James F. McRee he studied the many native plants grow- 
ing in the area, and the fact that he was soon to marry Mary Jane 
de Rosset indicates that he was accepted socially in the community. 


Early in the winter of 1833 Curtis returned to Massachusetts, 
and in Boston he began the study of theology under the Rev. Wil- 
liam Croswell, rector of the Church of the Advent and editor of The 
Episcopal Watchman. Something of young Curtis* ideas concern- 
ing the place of religion in life is expressed in a letter which he 
wrote on April 2, 1834, to Mary de Rosset in Wilmington: 

The old Puritan settlers originated an annual fast and thanks- 
giving, the one in the Spring, the other in the Fall, which the Gov- 
ernors "with & by the advice and consent of their councils" have 
perpetuated by yearly recommendations of their observance to the 
"good people" of their States. The idle and profligate of course 
disregard them as they do the Sabbath, but business is very gen- 
erally suspended on these days and the church going part of the 
population attend worship. It is well for a country that such re- 
ligious observances are woven into her institutions, not with the 
sanction of law but of common sense. It is to be regretted that our 
nation is the only civilized country that does not avow any re- 
ligion — our constitution might at least recognize the being of a 
God, though it did not make atheism a reason of civil disability. 
But an idea of religious liberty seems to have grown up which in- 
volves an unbounded licentiousness — which must respect the 
creed of a single individual as much as that of a million. If re- 
ligion was a matter of indifference this would indeed be well 
enough; but when it involves the destiny of men in eternity, and 
if true is awfully true, such a kind of liberty is a solecism. Yet the 
question is a delicate one, and its limits are of doubtful determina- 
tion. All nations seem to have erred in one or other of its ex- 
tremes. The Puritans who sought refuge from oppression in this 
country were as hostile to religious freedom as their persecutors 
had been as soon as they got the power into their hands. There 
was no such thing as liberty of conscience until Roger Williams 
taught it by example in his colony. 

By the spring of 1834 Curtis began to think of returning to 
North Carolina. Ordinarily a candidate for Holy Orders is required 
to spend three years in preparation, but the Bishop has power to 
dispense with one or two. In June Curtis wrote friends in Wilming- 
ton that the Bishop of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Levi Silliman 
Ives, had already made plans for his "field of labor" following his 
ordination, and he expected to enter it by the following spring at 
the latest. 


On the last day of June in 1834 the 26-year-old Curtis wrote 
Dr. A. J. de Rosset, father of Mary, setting forth his "qualifications" 
as a husband. 

My Grandfather left me a part of his estate, but it is not yet 
available to me, nor is its value known. It must however be small, 
and I make no calculations for the future upon it, leaving it to 
come as it will. Further than this I have nothing — save a pro- 
fession, and that not calculated to elevate one by very large or 
rapid acquisitions. What I have earned by teaching has mostly 
been applied to the payment of debts contracted by my education 
&c. I have never questioned but that I shall be able to secure a de- 
cent livelihood, but I am not happily constituted for making acqui- 
sitions of property by carefulness in preserving or by endowments 
that secure lucrative and important stations. I have no talents that 
will command notice and eminence; all I expect, and I may say, 
all I desire, is to settle down with the mediocrity. My mind is 
very seldom directed to future contingencies — I wish to be use- 
ful, and if directed so as to apply my faculties in such a way as to 
attain the greatest good I shall be contented, nay happy. The little 
thought I bestow upon temporal advantages is perhaps a fault with 
me, but I am thereby saved the anxieties and cares which a regard 
for them is apt to induce. ... I believe I have given you a faith- 
ful outline of my condition and prospects, by which your answer 
to my application can be governed. Any advice you may please to 
give will be gratefully received. I have no wish and no intention 
of adding to your expenses, or of imposing any burden. ... I do 
not wish or need anything but — your Mary: her I do both wish 
and need, and the possession I have no inclination to put off farther 
than a sound prudence requires. What that requires I leave to 
yourself to determine. I find a difficulty in settling a question on 
this quality in that the heart dictates to the head and forestalls its 
judgment. You can very easily settle their differences. 
Dr. de Rosset's reply surely speaks the sentiments of thousands 
of fathers of brides. 

... no unnecessary obstacles will be thrown in the way by 
me. The matter must be settled between the females of the fam- 
ily and yourself. I shall acquiesce. I have only one request to 
prefer, viz. that all parade and fuss be avoided — that the prepara- 
tion for, & conduct of the business be carried on upon Christian 
principles — that it be viewed as a religious solemnity — a Chris- 


tian festival, without regard to conformity with the practice of 

the world in general, or of this community in particular. 

Before the end of the year Curtis returned to Wilmington to 
complete his training, and he perhaps studied under the direction of 
the Rev. Thomas F. Davis, rector of St. James' Church. On De- 
cember 3, 1834, Moses Ashley Curtis and Mary Jane de Rosset were 
married in Wilmington. 

Bishop Ives left the state temporarily for his health and was 
absent when Curtis was ordained. For that occasion Curtis traveled 
to Richmond where the Rt. Rev. Richard Channing Moore, Bishop 
of Virginia, officiated in Christ Church. The Rev. Mr. Curtis, as 
a Deacon, was assigned to serve mission stations in various Western 
North Carolina communities, and he and Mrs. Curtis made their 
home in Lincolnton. At various times he officiated in Salisbury, 
Morganton, and Charlotte, as well as in Lincolnton. 

Towards the end of January, 1837, Curtis arrived in Raleigh 
where he was to begin teaching at the Episcopal School for boys 
(now St. Mary's Junior College). From the correspondence be- 
tween Curtis and his wife, who came later, we learn that the Rev. 
Adam Empie was head of the school when he arrived. Curtis took 
over from him in a few months, however. In telling his wife about 
the students he remarked that they seemed to doubt the "account of 
my peaceable nature and said I 'looked as if I could whip'." 

For more than two years Curtis labored for a cause which he 
felt to be worthwhile in spite of the fact that he did not like the 
confinement of teaching, the unruly pupils, and the necessity for 
refreshing his own knowledge of such things as grammar in pre- 
paring a day's lecture. His letters continually refer to the haste 
with which it was necessary to work and mention the "numerous 
harassing small duties." When Mrs. Curtis was preparing to join 
him in Raleigh, he directed her to bring only clothes and botanical 
books since household furniture was provided by the school. He 
had, however, bought one of the pianos then being made by a Ra- 
leigh man, he told her. 

By early 1838 Curtis reported that he had had to stop buying 
books in order to meet his pledge to pay the interest on the Episcopal 
Fund. A few days later, apparently after facing some difficult prob- 
lem, he wrote: 

I will work without salary, but it [the Episcopal School] shall 
go on. . . . The School is the child of the Church, and if nobody 


else will sacrifice to it, / will. We are so low now, that we cannot 
stand high and talk big to the world, but must get on our knees 
and beg good Episcopalians to send their sons to their own School 
— to foster their own child. . . . Why, I am just getting my 
grit up. I am mighty 'fraid it will get down again though. 
The coming of spring must have renewed his interest. In June 
he was off to Salem to recruit students for the school. The re- 
mainder of the summer he spent in the North Carolina mountains 
collecting botanical specimens. 

In Christ Church, Raleigh, on May 26, 1839, Curtis was or- 
dained Priest by Bishop Ives, but it was not until after another year 
had passed that he finally left Raleigh. Early in 1840 he closed out 
his affairs at the school and wrote his wife, who was visiting her 
family, that "I presented myself to my creditors this morning to go 
to jail, if they pleased, but money they could not have. They did 
not want my body; and as they could not get my money they agreed 
to let me run." He actually settled with them by letting one take 
back a clock and sell a lamp. He also sold a clothes press and ex- 
pected to sell other belongings. 

During a part of the years 1840-1841 the Rev. Mr. Curtis served 
as a missionary in the vicinity of Washington in Beaufort County. 
In June of the latter year he moved to Hillsboro where, with the 
exception of the years 1847-1856 when he was in Society Hill, S. C, 
he served as rector of St. Matthew's Church and frequently con- 
ducted a school until his death in 1872. On the eve of the Civil 
War he received a call to become rector of a church in Hyde Park, 
N. Y., but he declined. 

Curtis, through some strength of spirit which is almost beyond 
comprehension, led two separate but equally full lives. He was a 
Priest of the Church and from all evidence an extremely devout 
and unselfish one. He was a scientist, and the judgments of his 
contemporaries as well as those who have followed indicate that he 
was a keen observer and a pioneer discoverer of many American 

In addition to these two large areas of interest he also had sev- 
eral of lesser development. Lesser perhaps only for lack of time 
and not for want of ability. As a musician he was appreciated by 
a wide circle of friends throughout the state with whom he played 
on many occasions. The piano, flute, and organ (which he de- 
scribed as "grand and majestic [and] emphatically an instrument 


of the church") were his principal instruments. He sometimes 
served as church organist and frequently trained his choir to sing 
such works as Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," Mozart's "Gloria," 
and Haydn's "Creation." Whenever possible he attended musical 
concerts, particularly when he happened to be in Philadelphia, New 
York, or Boston, and his comments on them indicate a real appreci- 
ation of good music. He also composed hymns and anthems, some 
of which have survived in manuscript. One of his compositions, 
"How Beautiful Upon the Mountains," was written for his own or- 
dination as Deacon and sung again when he was ordained Priest. 
It also was sung at the ordinations of his son, Charles J. Curtis in 
1872 and 1873, and again at the centennial celebration of the 
Diocese of North Carolina. 

We know less of his work as a public speaker, but the manu- 
script for some of his lectures, and posters and clippings advertising 
them, have survived. Before the Civil War he was in demand as a 
lyceum speaker, and no doubt a careful search of newspapers of that 
period would throw much light on this phase of his life. 

As a linguist the Rev. Mr. Curtis was unusually well trained. 
He is said to have known German, French, Greek, Hebrew, and 
Latin. And for his own convenience he frequently made notes in 
shorthand and employed shorthand symbols in letters to members 
of his family. 

He was a devoted husband and father and while away from 
home observed strict "writing days." He frequently took his chil- 
dren with him on his trips through the state as well as to the North. 
Until the Civil War intervened he wrote regularly to his father and 
even managed to get some communications to him under a flag of 
truce during the war. News of the death of the elder Curtis reached 
him in 1862 through the kindness of a Union chaplain in occupied 
New Bern. 

The Civil War was a sad occurence for Curtis for a number of 
reasons. Although born in New England, he came of a slave-hold- 
ing family. His sympathies lay wholly with the South, 1 and one of 
his sons was killed at the Battle of Bentonville. He had a book 

1 An example of his feeling may be seen in his personal copy of Calvin 
Durfee's Williams Biographical Annals (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871) 
in which he has added penciled comments on a number of people. On page 
178 a reference to the Civil War as a "wicked rebellon" has been vigorously 
crossed through. 


almost ready for the press when the war came, and it was never 
published. His contact with fellow churchmen and scientists 
throughout the country and the world was suddenly cut off. 

In appearance, we are told by his son, the Rev. Mr. Curtis was 
a "majestic figure," of magnificent physique, with a handsome face. 
He was six feet tall, weighed around 212 pounds, had hazel eyes, 
and fine, silky dark hair. 

His children were: William White (1838-1843), Armand de 
Rosset (1839-1856), Moses Ashley (1842-1933), John Henry 
(1844-1865), Katharine Fullerton (1845-1922), Charles Jared 
(1847-1931), Mary Louisa (1849-1929), Magdalen de Rosset 
(April-September, 1851), Caroline (1852-1862), and Elizabeth 
de Rosset (1854-1928). 

A Man of God 

Of the factors influencing Curtis to turn to the Church we know 
little. We can only draw conclusions from the outward and visible 
signs. He grew up in a Christian home under the influence of New 
England Puritanism. Mark Hopkins was his cousin, but with his 
philosophy he did not agree. Some of his classmates at Williams 
College were Episcopalians and they may have influenced his think- 
ing. A number of years later he mentioned that his "old friend 
Haskins" had had such an influence on him. At Wilmington while 
living in the home of Edward B. Dudley and visiting the de Rosset, 
McRee, and other families he surely had an opportunity to witness 
the teachings of the Episcopal Church as revealed in the lives of its 
members. He was confirmed in the Church while living in Wil- 

That he chose to return to New England and to undertake a 
course of study under the Rev. William Croswell may be some in- 
dication that his decision had been made before he left Massachusetts. 
Bishop Levi Silliman Ives of North Carolina was a New England 
man to whom Curtis was devoted. It was Ives' extended illness 
and resulting erratic actions (which Curtis foresaw) that determined 
his course of action when he left North Carolina during the years 

Following his ordination to the diaconate in Richmond on May 
31, 1835, he was assigned to serve mission stations in the vicinity 


of Lincolnton, where he made his home. His first report to a dio- 
cesan convention told of preaching in Lincolnton; Charlotte, where 
a mission had been organized; at St. Andrew's Church and St. John's 
Chapel, Burke County; Christ Church, Rowan County; and St. 
Luke's Church, Salisbury. During the year he had baptized eleven 
white and six Negro persons. He also made a report for a Special 
Committee on Systematic Charity in response to a Pastoral Letter 
from the Bishop. 

In August of that first year Mrs. Curtis wrote her mother that 
"Botany stands a fine chance on our frequent journeyings. His port- 
folio is always brought back well filled . . . [yet] neither of us 
. . . allows it to interfere with a duty!' She added that they had 
recently visited Table Rock, 2,500 feet above the surrounding coun- 
try, "by a recent measurement of Dr. Mitchell." 

The Rev. Mr. Curtis must have made a favorable impression on 
his hearers in the communities which he visited. His diary records 
that on March 27, 1836, he preached to a congregation in Charlotte 
composed of "Jews, Unitarians, Papists, Baptists, Presbyterians, 
Methodists, and Episcopalians." 

Later Sarah C. Smith of Lexington, who apparently knew Cur- 
tis at this time, wrote to Mrs. Curtis that he was one of the few 
"evangelical" preachers among the Episcopalians and that in mat- 
ters relating to the Church he "has a peculiar faculty of making 
everything plain to me." This good lady afterwards wrote to Mrs. 
Curtis on a number of occasions and not infrequently commented 
that she had "pressed some plants" for Mr. Curtis. 

Curtis' son, the Rev. Charles J. Curtis, recorded some memoirs 
of his father in which he noted that missionary work appealed to the 
elder Curtis. "It was the pioneer spirit of the gospel," he noted, 
"which sent him on his missionary enterprise into the heart of the 
rugged mountain country of Western North Carolina to live and 
work among the simple mountaineers in the hard primitive condi- 
tions of those days thirty years before a railroad penetrated that out- 
of-the-way fastness, and [when there were] no wagon roads worthy 
of the name." From this experience it appears that Moses Ashley 
Curtis recognized the unusual possibilities for the Church in the 
mountains. We are told that he joined Bishop Ives in attempting 
to work out some practicable plan to educate and evangelize this 
promising field. "Out of it all," the younger Curtis noted, "was 
evolved the large and comprehensive scheme, centering and starting 


in a proposed associate mission and training school ... to be lo- 
cated at Valle Crucis, Watauga County." The plan was to send two 
men out together "to evangelize and educate gradually this whole 
mountain section." Later as Bishop Ives became ill he lost influence 
and leadership, and the whole plan broke down. 

On May 26, 1839, Bishop Ives advanced Curtis to the priest- 
hood in an ordination service held at Christ Church, Raleigh. After 
concluding his affairs at the Episcopal School for boys in Raleigh he 
was assigned to mission work in Beaufort County where he arrived 
on March 12, 1840. He conducted services at Trinity Chapel; St. 
Thomas' Church, Bath, North Carolina's oldest church; Zion's 
Chapel; and St. John's Church. All together there were about sixty 
communicants under his care. 

In 1841 Curtis accepted a call to St. Matthew's Church, Hills- 
boro. He was still in Beaufort County in April, but by June he was 
established in Hillsboro which was to be home to the Curtis family 
for many years. They quickly found a place for themselves in the 
community. Curtis' "sterling character and dignified presence," we 
are told, "carried weight and strong influence in the community. His 
conduct of public worship was always full and reverent. His preach- 
ing was quiet, with but little gesture, and free from oratorical 
flourish, his sermons being expressed in chaste, simple English, car- 
rying confidence and conviction. Like nearly all the preachers of 
his day of the Church, he always preached from manuscript." 

The issue of the Hillsborough Recorder for May 31, 1841, had 
a front page story by T. S. Arthur entitled "The New Minister." 
On the surface it is a story of fiction, but coming just at this time we 
suspect that the Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis is somehow connected 
with it. Ellen May in the story asked her sister, "What kind of a 
sermon did the new minister give you this morning?" 

"O, it was delightful," replied Mary with animation. "He is a 
splendid looking man with an eye as bright as a diamond. And 
such a voice! It was the finest for an orator I ever heard." 

From Hillsboro Curtis moved out to serve surrounding com- 
munities. He conducted regular services at old St. Mary's Church, 
six miles away. He started and kept up regular worship at Graham, 
18 miles away, at Company Shops (now Burlington), 20 miles 
away, and somewhat later conducted services in Greensboro. 

The Rev. Mr. Curtis was an influential parish priest who earned 
and deserved the devotion and loyalty of his neighbors. A careful 


search of the records undoubtedly would reveal cases of many young 
men who, under his influence, turned to the ministry. John Huske 
Tillinghast was one such, and at his death at the age of 97 in 1933, 
he was the oldest matriculate of the University of North Carolina, 
the oldest priest of the Church in the United States, and the oldest 
former chaplain of the Confederate Army. 

For a great many of the years during which he was a minister, 
the Rev. Mr. Curtis was also a teacher. References to this occur 
again and again in the family letters. At one time his wife de- 
scribed him as "fully occupied" with five "scholars" of whom two 
were living in his house. At another time he was training six boys. 

Official diocesan duties frequently occupied the busy Curtis. 
Quite early in his career he was appointed to the committee on a 
Diocesan Library. He was often a delegate to the General Conven- 
tion of the Church and, of course, was a regular attendant at the 
annual diocesan conventions. He frequently was a convention 
preacher, and examination of the journals of the conventions held 
during his active years reveals his assignments to numerous com- 
mittees. Perhaps in partial recognition of these services as well as 
in other fields, the University of North Carolina in 1852 conferred 
upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. 

Curtis was an interested participant in the founding of the Uni- 
versity of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. When first asked for his 
ideas about the establishment of a great Church university in the 
South he reacted with enthusiasm. He foresaw a broad scheme for 
an outstanding university modeled after Oxford and Cambridge and 
other universities of the Old World. He suggested that "secondary 
schools" might be connected with it as branches throughout the 
South, "all drawing moral and spiritual inspiration from the Church," 
his son tells us. Curtis was North Carolina's clerical member of the 
Board of Trustees of the new university from its organization until 
his death, and long and expensive trips were often necessary to at- 
tend meetings. Nevertheless, he made them regularly. He served 
on the committee which in 1857 selected the site for the university 
— a magnificent area on a mountain top. When the decision was 
made a cross was erected to mark the spot, and it was Curtis who 
raised the "paean of praise and the shout of thanksgiving and re- 
joicing, and starting up the Gloria in Excelsis which rang out for 
the first time there in those wilds of nature's forest temple ere man 
could transfer it for the purpose of the Church's use." 


Pioneer American Scientist 

While Moses Ashley Curtis was known at home as an Episcopal 
clergyman of outstanding vigor, he was known outside North Caro- 
lina as a scientist. It seems quite likely that those who knew him 
in one capacity were almost totally unaware of the other. A citizen 
of Wilmington once was visiting London's Kew Gardens when, in 
conversation with William Wright, a botanist there, he mentioned 
his home town. Wright at once inquired if he knew a Mr. Curtis in 
North Carolina. The Wilmington man, of course, did know him 
and explained that he was a busy young clergyman. The English 
botanist expressed surprise and "intimated that he thought it was a 
pity that so fine and promising a botanist should waste his time 
fooling with theology." 

As has already been noted, the first evidence we have of his in- 
terest in botany appeared during the years 1830-1833 while he was 
in Wilmington. During that period he also found time to visit 
South Carolina and Georgia for the purpose of "botanizing." The 
earliest reference to this subject in his correspondence is in a letter 
which he wrote to his fiancee, Mary de Rosset, from Massachusetts 
on September 8, 1834. 

I have a long and laborious letter to write to Prof. Torrey on 
certain weeds and arbs which I found in your swamps and rice 
fields and which I am just now actively engaged in dressing up 
for the service of other botanists. At one time you might find me 
in the midst of 20,000 or 30,000 volumes, poring over tomes an- 
cient and modern, folios and octodecimos, collating from Linneus 
down to Eaton to settle the obscurity that involves some of your 
common weeds. Is it not ridiculous that I should con over forty 
or fifty volumes just to find out the proper designation of your 
miserable looking "wire grass"? Yet so it is, and I have not yet 
done! Alt another time you would see me, and make wry faces too, 
in the midst of a cabinet of minerals, monkeys, birds, fishes, bugs, 
shells, skeletons and snakes, surrounded by the beautiful and fright- 
ful of nature, the attractive and repulsive in life, but all interesting 
and instructive, in their economy, habits and complicated mech- 
anism. It is a wonder to me that Nature in all its features is not 
admired, from that which is "awfully great" to that which is "ele- 
gantly little." In the hideous skeleton of a human frame Galen 
beheld the ingenious and wonderful contrivance of a superior Be- 


ing and renounced his heathenism for Christianity. In the small 
insects that flit in the evening light and are brushed away from us 
unheeded the microscope developes a structure far surpassing in 
beauty and the adaptation of parts the proud king of the forest. 
The human mind is far too weak to comprehend the wisdom and 
power that fashion the fly. The pride and indolence of our nature 
blind us to a thousand beauties because they are apparently small 
and insignificant, yet which humility and attention would disclose, 
and overwhelm us with astonishment and delight. Indeed it is in 
more minute objects of creation that we can expect to find new 
and ever increasing subjects of wonder, for extended variety is not 
to be sought for in that which is vast. . . . Variety of form and 
habit is endless and when the student has spent a life in their ex- 
amination he finds that he has hardly stepped upon the threshold 
of this wide world of wonders. 

Curtis' report on the plants of the Wilmington area, to which 
he refers here, was published in the May, 1835, issue of the Journal 
of the Boston Society of Natural History. He described 1,031 spe- 
cies, which was about two hundred less than were then thought to 
belong to the flora of his native Massachusetts. From this report 
others working in the same field discovered him to be "a careful 
observer and sagacious botanist." His study and description of the 
Venus's flytrap {Dionaea muscipula), for instance, corrected much 
previous misinformation. 

After completing a particularly strenuous year of teaching in the 
Episcopal School in Raleigh Curtis spent the summer of 1839 in the 
mountains of Western North Carolina. The first day out of Raleigh 
he traveled as far as Jones's, a short distance west of Cary, and there- 
after moved along to Chapel Hill, Salisbury, and Lincolnton. He 
expressed the intention of going to Table Rock and Grandfather 
Mountain before taking up a permanent station for the summer at 
Cherokee. He anticipated opportunities for botanical research and 
collection "which will probably never occur again." From Ashe- 
ville on July 23, he wrote his wife: 

Our appearance [one Reinhardt was his guide] on the road, 
with our Portfolios swung over our backs — & he with a double 
barrel'd gun — excites great curiosity, & we are sometimes teased 
out of patience by people who cannot be made to understand our 
business. They cannot comprehend the reason or the sense of so 
much labor & toil, where no money is to be made. At Avery's we 


were taken by his workmen to be Mormons — at Miller's we 
were supposed to be "foolish men." In the Mts they think we 
want plans for "stomping Rallikers" — or worst of all, for Thomp- 
sonian practice. Yet the people have uniformly treated us very 
civilly, & as hospitably as they could. 

Much of the country through which Curtis and his guide passed, 
he commented, had been burned over regularly by the Indians so 
that the woods were very open with no undergrowth or small trees. 
The ground was covered with grass, herbs, and a variety of common 
flowers. "As a Botanist," Curtis lamented, "I have to abuse the 
poor Indians for having destroyed so many plants." 

An examination of the earliest records kept by Curtis shows that 
he studied the relation of plant life to geologic and climatic sur- 
roundings. "The study of botanical geography was begun and con- 
tinued during his whole career as a botanist, extending over 38 
years," Dr. Thomas F. Wood remarked in "A Sketch of the Botan- 
ical Work of the Rev. Moses Ashley Curtis," read before the Elisha 
Mitchell Scientific Society in Chapel Hill on May 22, 1885. 1 

Dr. Wood praised Curtis' Woody Plants, as the book published 
in I860 was popularly called. Almost immediately it "became a 
popular manual for the farmer and the woodsman, and for amateur 
botanists, a key to the more conspicuous trees and shrubs useful for 
their fruit or timber, or as ornaments." The natural climatological 
divisions of the state which Curtis noted have continued to be recog- 
nized. He first brought to the attention of the whole country the 
unique position of North Carolina as regards climate, soil, and 
forest products. Wood commented that it was Curtis who first 
pointed out "that North Carolina has a difference of elevation be- 
tween the east and west which gives a difference of climate equal 
to 10 or 12 degrees of latitude." 

In his own pioneering work Curtis was careful to leave no stone 
unturned to learn what had already been done. He acknowledged 
John Lawsons trail-blazing account of Carolina and Brickell's re- 
lated work. Catesby's Natural History of Carolina was cited, and he 
even went so far as to publish "A Commentary on the Natural His- 
tory of Dr. Hawks' History of North Carolina," in which he at- 
tempted "to satisfy the enquiries of those persons who are curious 
about knowing the natural productions of our State described by 

^Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, II (1884-1885), 9-31. 


the early explorers." As the result of more than twenty years' ob- 
servation and study, he wrote, he had little difficulty in identifying 
many of the plants described "by the old journalists included in Dr. 
Hawks' work." 

Curtis was in close and frequent communication with leading 
botanists at home and abroad. Asa Gray, H. W. Ravenel, William 
S. Sullivant, Edward Tuckerman, A. W. Chapman (whose Flora of 
the Southern United States, published in I860, was dedicated to 
Curtis), all of this country, were among his correspondents. The 
Rev. Miles Joseph Berkeley in England was an especially close co- 
worker, particularly in the later years of Curtis' life when he was 
studying fungi. Curtis' last letter to Berkeley, incidentally, was 
written less than a month before his death in Hillsboro on April 
10, 1872. 

His national reputation was such that specimens collected by 
United States exploring expeditions were sent to him for study, 
identification, and a report. In 1851 he and Berkeley published 
"Descriptions of New Species of Fungi Collected by the U. S. Ex- 
ploring Expedition under C. Wilkes, U.S.N., Commander," and 
during 1856-1860 they were the joint authors of "Characters of 
New Fungi, Collected in the North Pacific Exploring Expedition by 
Charles Wright." This sort of work certainly had been going on 
since as early as 1846, for it was in that year that he wrote his wife: 
Have been busy as a bee since my return — heaps of plants 
for arranging — from Missouri, Texas, Florida, Key West, South 
Carolina, Wilmington & Ashe Coy ( the last from Prout ) — many 
fine & rare. Those Key West things quite uncivilized. 
By 1846 we begin to see an expression of interest on the part of 
Curtis in a serious study of fungi. By the time of the Civil War he 
had made an extensive investigation in this field and was a recog- 
nized authority on mycology. During the war he undertook to pre- 
pare a work on "Esculent Fungi" for which his son, Charles J. Curtis, 
prepared colored drawings. The book was completed but never 

Curtis could safely say by 1869 that he had eaten a greater 
variety of mushrooms than any one on the American continent. By 
carefully testing one species after another he learned their quality 
as food and discovered that the flavor varied with the type material 
in which it grew. Mushrooms growing in hickory and mulberry 
wood, for example, he found to be especially desirable. At one time 


during the war he had asserted that he believed it possible to "main- 
tain a regiment of soldiers five months of the year upon mushrooms 
alone." In partial support of this statement he reported that he 
had collected and eaten forty species found within two miles of his 
own house. 

It was not until 1867 that the companion volume to his Woody 
Plants appeared. A portion of the work on his A Catalogue of the 
Indigenous and Naturalized Plants of the State, which appeared that 
year, had perhaps been accomplished during the years 1860-1862 
when Curtis was employed by the North Carolina Geological Survey 
in the capacity of botanist and zoologist. In total, however, it rep- 
resents the result of more than twenty-five years of observation and 
discovery. This was the most extensive local list of plants ever pub- 
lished in North America and it recorded more than 4,800 species. 
Dr. Wood tells us that "it was the first attempt to enumerate the 
cryptogamous as well as the phenogamous plants made by any bot- 
anist in this country, and its appearance was a matter of much scien- 
tific congratulation." 

Dr. Wood refers with regret to the "primitive state of the 
typographer's and bookmaker's art" at that time. "The only reward 
to the man of science," he observes, "was the consciousness of his 
thorough work .... But it seems that Dr. Curtis was very many 
years in advance of his time, and the expectation that his broad 
foundation would have been built upon by his early successors has 
little prospect of fulfilment." 

Herbaria collected by Curtis during his long years of devoted 
study are now at the University of North Carolina, Harvard Uni- 
versity, the University of Nebraska, and the New York State Mu- 
seum. Thanks to the generosity of his grandchildren an extensive 
file of correspondence with members of Curtis' family as well as 
with scientists and clergymen is in the Southern Historical Collection 
at the University of North Carolina Library. The North Carolina 
Collection in the same Library has many of Curtis' books with his 
own notes in them. Other Curtis papers are in the files of the 
United States Department of Agriculture, Harvard University, the 
British Museum, and Kew Gardens, as well, perhaps, as in scattered 
collections throughout the world. 


A Bibliography of the Published Writings 

Moses Ashley Curtis 

"Enumeration of Plants Growing Spontaneously Around Wilmington, 
North Carolina, With Remarks on Some New and Obscure Species," in 
Journal of the Boston Society of Natural History, I (May, 1835), 82-141. 


"An Account of Some New and Rare Plants of North Carolina," in 
American Journal of Science and Arts, XLIV (January, 1843), 80-84. 


Sacerdotal Absolution; A Sermon, Preached Before the Convention of 
the Diocese of North Carolina, 1843. New York: James A Sparks, 1844. 


"Unity of the Races," in The Southern Quarterly Review, VII (April, 
1845), 372-448. 


"Contributions to the Mycology of North America," in American Jour- 
nal of Science and Arts, LVI (November, 1848 ) , 349-353, 444-445. See also 
entries under 1849 and 1850. 


"New and Rare Plants, Chiefly of the Carolinas," in American Journal 
of Science and Arts, LVII (May, 1849), 406-411. 

"Contributions to the Mycology of North America," in American Jour- 
nal of Science and Arts, LVIII (November, 1849), 401-403. See also en- 
tries under 1848 and 1850. 


"Contributions to the Mycology of North America," in American Jour- 
nal of Science and Arts, LIX (May, 1850), 171-175; LX (September, 
1850), 185-188. See also entries under 1848 and 1849. 


"Descriptions of New Species of Fungi Collected by the U. S. Exploring 
Expedition under C. Wilkes, U.S.N., Commander; by Rev. M. J. Berkeley 
and Rev. M. A. Curtis," in American Journal of Science and Arts, LXI (Jan- 
uary, 1851), 93-95. 


"Centuries of North American Fungi," [with M. J. Berkeley] in Annals 
of Natural History (London), XII, Series 2, (1853), 417-435. See also 
entry under 1859. 



"Exotic Fungi from the Schweinitzian Harbarium, Principally from 
Surinam," [with M. J. Berkeley] in Journal of the Academy of Natural 
Sciences of Philadelphia, II, New Series, (1854), 277-293. 


"A Commentary of the 'Synopsis Fungorum in America Boreali Media 
Degentium,' by L. D. de Schweinitz," in Journal of the Academy of Natural 
Sciences of Philadelphia, III, New Series, (1856), 205-224. 


"Characters of New Fungi, Collected in the North Pacific Exploring 
Expedition by Charles Wright," [with M. J. Berkeley] in Proceedings of 
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, IV (1857-60), 111-130. 


"Centuries of North American Fungi," [with M. J. Berkeley] in Annals 
of Natural History (London), IV, Series 3, (1859), 284-296. See also 
entry under 1853. 


Geological and Natural History Survey of North Carolina, Part III, 
Botany: Containing A Catalogue of the Plants of the State, With Descrip- 
tions and History of the Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines. Raleigh: W. W. 
Holden, Printer to the State, I860. 124pp. See also entries under 1883 
and 1945. 

"A Commentary on the Natural History of Dr. Hawks History of North 
Carolina," in North -Carolina University Magazine, IX (March, 1860), 


Governor's Message [Jonathan Worth] Transmitting a Memorial from 
the Trustees of the University of North Carolina, And A Communication 
from Rev. Dr. Curtis. (Doc. No. 11, Ses. 1865 -'66.) Raleigh: Wm. E. Pell, 
Printer to the State, 1866. 7pp. 


Geological and Natural History of North Carolina, Part 111. Botany; 
Containing A Catalogue of the Indigenous and Naturalized Plants of the 
State. Raleigh: Printed at N. C. Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and the 
Blind, 1867. 158pp. 


"Japan Clover — What It Is," in The Hillsborough Recorder, [Decem- 
ber, 1868 - January, 1869?] An undated clipping laid in one of Curtis' 
books in the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library. 



"Edible Fungi in North Carolina," in Gardeners' Chronicle (London), 
XXVIII (October 9, 1869), 1066. 

"Fungi Cubensis (Hymenomycetes) ," [with M. J. Berkeley] in Jour- 
nal of the Linnean Society (London), X (1869), 280-392. 


"Fungi," [with M. J. Berkeley], pages 193-202, in Asa Gray, editor, 
. . . . Botany. Cryptogamia. Philadelphia. Printed by C. Sherman & Co., 
1874. This is volume XVII in United States Exploring Expedition. During 
the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Under the Command of Charles 
Wilkes, U.S.N. 


Peter M. Hale. The Woods and Timbers of North Carolina. Raleigh: 
P. M. Hale, 1883. 272pp. Pages 7-198 are Curtis' Geological and Natural 
History Survey of North Carolina. Part III - Botany. The Woody Plants of 
the State, With Description of the Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines. 


The Shrubs and Woody Vines of North Carolina. A Reprint from 
Geological and Natural History Survey Part III - Botany. Trees, Shrubs and 
Woody Vines . . . 1860. Raleigh: Department of Conservation and De- 
velopment, 1945. 38pp.